Nobody told me how hard natural family planning (NFP) would be. Nobody told me how hard marriage would be. No one told me how hard fatherhood would be. At least I don’t remember anyone giving me full disclosure twenty plus years ago.
Then again, I probably wasn’t listening. I was too much in love.
For those early years Melanie and I were in that “roaring fire” new love. That’s that exuberant young love that gives off so much spectacular heat and light that you think – together we can handle anything, everything. Marriage? Forever! Sex? Only you! Money? No problem! Kids? Of course! House? Big! Other people have problems because they don’t have what we have! (Insert favorite love song here!)
Love does have the power to make all things possible in good times and bad, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer. But the power is not in the roaring flames, bright light, or any of the awesome externals. Every grill master knows this. You have to wait for the mature wood to burn into coal – for the bonfire to be a cooking fire – when those roaring external flames turn in to steady, quiet, shimmering white heat that sears juicy steaks and coaxes rib meat off their bone!
Of course, not all wood can turn those flames inward. Some just burn right up in a blaze of glory. It’s the old hardwoods that burn into the hottest, long-lasting coal you can cook on. The fire is the test and the proof. The test and proof of young love is time. Perhaps this is the power of dating, courtship, and engagement: to test and prove if the “hardwoods” of character, virtues, and faith are there in the man and in the woman to burn “until death do us part.”
Since those early bonfire days, Melanie and I have lived our twenty-two years of marriage in agonizing ecstasy of that proving fire. The spectacular has become the hidden. Hopes have been realized, dashed, surpassed, forgotten, and delayed. We have brought each other more joy and suffering than we ever thought possible. We acknowledge our utter dependence on Christ in prayer, Confession, and the Eucharist. Our wounds are real, but the fruit born of our faith, hope, and love is more real.
We haven’t been at this long enough to have any success “secrets”, but we have most assuredly come this far because of our Catholic faith. Our love brought us back to the Church thirsting for truth. Our faith in Jesus Christ and His Church showed us to love beyond our own ability. It was the Church that invited and equipped us to love each other with God’s love: freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully. She gives us our daily bread. We trust and believe all that the Church teaches about God and Man because she is the Bride of Christ.
Melanie and I married on April 24, 1993 freely accepting all that the Church teaches about marriage, sexuality, and family – even the tough stuff. We certainly didn’t know or understand or even like everything taught, but we accepted it from a source we deemed trustworthy to lead us to true happiness.
We trust the Church that called us to sexual honesty while we were dating, and were surprised by the joy of chaste love in the two years before our wedding. (That crucible is for a whole other blog post!). This transformed us.
We trust the Church that called us to learn NFP to help us order our sexual power to our marriage vows. It has transformed our marriage and us.
We trust the Church that called us to order our marriage to building a family and credit NFP with helping us call eight beautiful children into the world. They transform us.
We trust the Church that called us to open our home to children in need and welcomed two beautiful children by adoption. They have transformed our family.
It is truly remarkable what the Lord will do with us if we would only trust Him. Oh, we will suffer – with or without Him. But, it is love that gives suffering all of its purpose and meaning. God will transform the spectacular flames of human love into an internal, eternal fire of divine Love. God transforms lovers into Lovers. But it must burn.
This burning hurts because it is a suffering, a loss of what we have and are. I like my wood – it is who I am! I know coals can do so much more than wood like heat whole homes, move trains, steam ships, and generate electricity for millions, but it’s too much to burn into that. Why would any sane person freely choose to go through that suffering even for the hope to be more?
I’m not sure they do. But I know lovers do. Lovers do “for love” (and “in” love) what never would be done for a reason, or a rule, or a doctrine, or a law. True love “loves” and needs to suffer – not for suffering’s sake alone, but for the sake of what we know is only gained on the other side of suffering: Joy. This is a suffering for, not merely suffering in. Perhaps this is why Our Lord called us to live either marriage or celibacy “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven”: for eternal Joy.
We entrust our love, our marriage, our sexuality, our fertility, our children, our hopes, our dreams, and our lives to Jesus Christ through the Holy Catholic Church. It burns. It’s ecstatic. It hurts, deeply. But I want to burn internally, eternally with the fire of Love.
It is a daily adventure becoming heroic lovers. We choose hard things like NFP because they help burn our coals more intensely. It’s definitely not easy, but it’s worth it.
NFP is for Lovers. Show me a lover, and they will understand.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and enkindle in us the fire of your Love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth!
DAMON OWENS is executive director of the Theology of the Body Institute and has served as Natural Family Planning and Marriage Preparation Coordinator for the Archdiocese of Newark, founded two non-profit organizations (New Jersey Natural Family Planning Association and Joy-Filled Marriage New Jersey), and led initiatives for various pro-life and pro-family organizations such as the New Jersey Catholic Bishops Conference, The Children First Foundation, and Life Education and Resource Network (L.E.A.R.N.), the largest African-American, pro-life ministry in the country. Damon is a certified speaker and has been lecturing for the Theology of the Body Institute since 2005. He has produced three 13-episodes series for EWTN including NFP: Embracing the Marital Gift. He and his wife, Melanie, have been married for 22 years and have eight children.